To call science fiction films escapism could not be further from the truth. Look past the genre’s futuristic veneers, and you’ll find just how remarkably grounded these stories are in the present. The most essential of these tales find new ways to interact with, challenge and expand the dimensions of what it means to be human.
This year, A24’s “After Yang” arrives as a worthy addition to the all-time great sci-fi canon, one of the most quietly profound films in recent memory. Adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein and bound together with tenderness, director Kogonoda’s follow-up to 2017’s “Columbus” is a graceful, open-hearted excavation of memory that imagines a gentler future where technology might have the potential to genuinely love us back.
When Yang (Justin H. Min) — a “techno-sapien” who serves as an older brother to the adopted Chinese girl Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) — breaks down, her father Jake (Colin Farrell) takes him down to the local repair shop. Soon, it becomes clear to both him and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) that there isn’t a way to bring him back, and from then on, “After Yang” gently transitions into a warm-hearted eulogy; the film’s tone shifts from the spectacular high of its opening credits to a peaceful reflection and stays there the whole rest of the way.
The premise of mourning a household object may not seem like it offers much room for a plot to unfold, but the magic of the film occurs within the space it makes for each of its characters to ruminate on their relationships with Yang. As Jake parses through Yang’s memory files, he begins to realize the emotional distance within his family and all of the gaps that his android worked earnestly to fill. Throughout the film’s flashbacks, scenes seem to play on loop; lines of conversation are repeated and shot from slightly different camera angles, a directorial choice which initially scans as jarring but plays out like continuously running back through the past until the point of epiphany.
The world of “After Yang” is immaculate and serene, if left intentionally vague so as not to distract from the central themes. Locations are inflected with a balance of nature and artifice (from Jake’s futuristic tea shop to the modern stylings of the family’s home), and greenery and pan-Asian futuristic design coexist in perfect harmony. These details seamlessly blend together the organic and inorganic, underscoring how interconnected the two are in this story’s future.
Kogonoda shoots the everyday lives of his characters in static, calculated compositions reminiscent of the work of the master Yasujirō Ozu. Most of the character’s interactions together take place inside the home; the family drama is subtle, but still felt in the air from scene to scene as characters move through the stillness of the frame. Contrasted by the shots of Yang’s memories — which are vibrant, natural and handheld — it often makes the android feel like the film’s most human character.
As the primary vessel into Yang’s “essence,” Farrell’s Jake is cold and emotionally muted, approaching the central issue by pragmatic means. He’s contrasted by the concerns of Turner’s Kyra, Min’s performance as Yang, which feels so tender and warm that his cerebral nature barely touches the surface. Haley Lu Richardson joins the fray in a pivotal supporting role as the synthetic Ada (the film opens up the door and leaves unanswered the question of whether technos are capable of romantic relationships), tipping the emotional scale over in a story added up from snapshot moments upon moments that gradually draw out vulnerability while grappling with the meaning of existence.
Though the cherry on top of its list of outstanding attributes includes musical contributions from composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Mitski that are sure to send fans into frenzy, “After Yang” itself is the most delicate of sci-fi love songs. Kogonoda’s latest is at once universally and deeply personally felt — a self-reflective, nuanced journey that uncovers hidden emotions and profundity within every viewer. All it asks in return is for a closer look.